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Aberdeen University asks: Why are women and people of colour overlooked as heroes?

By David Porter

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Women and people of colour remain invisible to many in Britain and the USA as people pick white men as their heroes instead, according to a new study by the University of Aberdeen and University of Exeter.

Their achievements are often forgotten or not recognised when people are choosing who inspires them, researchers have found.

Why do we continue to chose white men as heroes?
Why do we continue to chose white men as heroes?

Most people said their family and friends, people closest to them, were their heroes.

These ‘everyday’ heroes accounted for one in three choices in Britian and 41 per cent in the US.

In both countries, politicians were popular as heroes, with more common choices including Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, and British Prime Ministers such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

Human rights activists and campaigners were the sixth most popular category in both countries. This included Martin Luther King Jr, whose popularity competes with Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai in the UK, and Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X in the US.

But there were striking differences between the two countries. Celebrities, actors, and TV presenters were the second popular category of hero in Britain, with only 1.2 per cent choosing religious figures. Religious figures were the second most popular type of hero in the US, reaching almost 7 per cent of all reported heroes. British respondents tended to choose living religious leaders such as the Pope compared to the US respondents’ affinity with Biblical figures.

British and US women were more likely than men to have women-heroes. American and British men were around four times less likely to have a woman-hero than women - 9 to 34 per cent in the US and 9 to 40 per cent in Britain.

The analysis by Natasha Danilova from the University of Aberdeen and Ekaterina Kolpinskaya from the University of Exeter is based on YouGov surveys that asked 1686 adults in Britain and 1000 in the USA who their biggest personal hero was.

Dr Danilova said: “In both countries, ethnic minorities belong to another group of ‘invisible’, and often overlooked heroes.

"But there was a much wider presence of non-white Americans in the ‘pool’ of the US heroes. This included prominent public figures such as Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.

“As in Britain, American women are disproportionately – and statistically significantly – more likely to have ethnic minority heroes with one in three women declaring an ethnic minority figures among their family and friends.”

Dr Kolpinskaya said: “The allure of heroes is enduring. We have found people’s gender and ethnicity has an impact on who their hero is. There is a persistent gap between the publicly prominent white male hero-figure and a perpetually ‘invisible’, and ‘forgotten’ heroine. People’s choice of hero reflects their own sex and race and ethnicity.”

In Britain, although racial prejudice is declining, non-white minority heroes account for only 15 per cent of all heroes compared to 31 per cent in the US. This includes 21 per cent for women. Ethnic minority hero-figures tend to include non-British political activists such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Mahatma Gandhi, and Muhammad Ali, while only three Britons made it to the list, including boxer Lennox Lewis, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and a Victoria Cross recipient Johnson Beharry. The study says there is an acute need for the public recognition of ethnic minorities in the fabric of British society.

African Americans (88 per cent), Hispanics (70 per cent) and Americans belonging to other ethnic minority groups (89 per cent) had a strikingly higher probability of having a non-white hero compared to white Americans (6.5 per cent).

Only one in four Britons and one in five Americans said they had a heroine.

When family members were excluded only 11 per cent of Americans choose a women public figure hero, compared to one in five Britons. The under 25’s in the US were more likely to have a women-hero than those who were older while rates for older and younger people were similar in the UK at 25 per cent.

In Britain, supporting the Conservative Party increases the probability of having a woman-hero - 27 per cent chance compared to 13 per cent for Labour, 22 per cent for Liberal Democrats and 14 per cent for UKIP. Researchers believe this represents a ‘Thatcher effect’ – with Margaret Thatcher accounting for 18 per cent of all women-heroes listed by Conservative supporters.

Supporting the Republican Party in the US substantially reduced the chance of having a woman-hero with the Republicans having a 13 per cent chance of having a woman-hero compared to the Democrats’ 25 per cent.

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